■ 15 August 2011 by James Martin
There’s a lot of history in Italy. Humans have come across many solutions to social problems over the years—and if you look hard enough, you’ll find a good deal of cleverness in those solutions.
In the Lunigiana, we are blessed with a fantastic group who works to show us those clever bits wrought by society. Along with an Italian law that makes sense (if a place has historic interest and isn’t a danger to visitors, it has to be available to be seen by the public at least one day a year) the group takes you into places that are normally closed to the public, or have other functions, like churches that are only open for the occasional mass.
We’ve taken several walks with Farfalle in Cammino. All explanation is in Italian, but that doesn’t mean you will be left out. Much of what you see is fabulously visual.
Take that Reliquary over there. Odd isn’t it? It was a very popular thing to do with the bones or other odd bits of a dead but important religious figure in medieval times; you put the relic inside a container that mimicked the real deal. So, there’s an arm on the left. It is displayed along with a twin at the Misericordia Museum of Pontremoli, which we visited Sunday evening.
I’ve written of the origins of the Misericordia before:
The Misericordia began as a confraternity of the faithful working to give aid to anyone who needed it. You see, back in the 11th century the Government didn’t sponsor much in the way of assistance to the sick or the poor. Christians, who actually took notice of the works of Jesus, a rarity in modern “Christianity” but an important part of religion in the medieval period, were evidently eager to make some effort toward filling this gap and increasing their chances of getting to heaven. This, in a very small and inadequate nutshell, was how the Confraternity was born. They donned costumes that completely covered them, masking their identity. Your healing was between you and your God.
Pontremoli is a small town, but was once an important stop on the Via Francigena. Its Misericordia is the third oldest in Italy.
Another interesting invention was a horse-drawn ambulance dated to 1910 where the passenger compartment had a suspension system completely independent from that of the wagon, so that a patient in discomfort could be isolated from the bumps and potholes of the road. This was a recent innovation in Formula One cars, which were so stiffly sprung that Driver’s brains were being scrambled by the bounciness.
We also visited the palazzo Dosi, a beautifully frescoed residence just off the Piazza Republica in Pontremoli. You can see part of it in the picture at the top of the post, our guide is on the right. What might seem carved is entirely Trompe-l‘œil.
And who would have thought when entering a modern church on the edge of Pontremoli (at the point of one of its most important gates for pilgrims) that stuck in a corner and covered in plexiglass would be found a perfect example of a 12th century labyrinth?
But there it was. The original temple on that spot had been bombed to oblivion during the second World War.
Some would equate the Labyrinth with a maze, but if you trace your finger over the lines (which is what you were supposed to do, providing the powers that be hadn’t put a plexiglass sheet over it), you would discover that there is no maze to it at all, no decisions to be made. You walked or traced the coiled path and it lead you to the center, where you might meditate and pray, and then back out again, a metaphor of life and its meanders—and its path. A labyrinth also reminds you of the solitude of your personal path and your relation to God, who, at least in this case, is clearly labeled as the center of the labyrinth. (Click on any picture to see it larger.)
Today, as we also observed on our little jaunt, many people empty their minds by getting in enormous cars and driving the narrow streets as if a participant in a labyrinth—until they are awakened by the spirit in the seat beside them, imploring them in harsh and unforgiving terms to ask somebody for directions. How life has changed!
In any case, if you’re in the Lunigiana, check out Farfalle in Cammino. They have a web site in English.
Volterra also has an interesting Misercordia Museum.
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